Shani Jackson Dowell


Shani Dowell is a graduate of Howard University and holds an M.B.A. from Stanford University. She started her career at Bain and Company and then worked on education cases for the Bridgespan Group before joining the KIPP charter network and launching schools in Houston, New Orleans, and Nashville. So inspired by seeing Teach For America alumni expanding opportunities for students, Shani became a corps member and taught math in Houston (in the district where she was educated) before joining Teach For America staff on the recruitment team. She now leads Teach For America’s Greater Nashville region and believes our city can become a place where every child, including her daughter, has a great school to attend.
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Photo credit: torbakhopper

A few months ago, as the weather warmed, a truth that the winter had been hiding was revealed. There is a woman at my church—I suspect she is unhoused or at least housing insecure. She takes the free meals offered and comes to church with what looks to be all of her belongings. The warmer weather meant that she wasn’t covered up in layers, and I confirmed what I thought I may have seen—she’s pregnant. Having just had a baby myself in the past year, seeing an unhoused pregnant woman was, in some ways, haunting. I thought about how difficult it is to be the mother of a newborn with the luxuries of health insurance, pre-natal care, a comfortable place to rest, security in my next meal, and every trinket and knick-knack. Then I thought about not only the challenges for this mom, but also for the newborn. The odds are already stacked against her.

A few days later, at a sandwich shop, I saw a family of four—a husband, wife, and their two kids. It was a school day at 9a.m., so I was curious why the kids, who looked to be around third- and fifth-graders, weren’t in school. Then I noticed what appeared to be many of their belongings piled on and around their table. It became clear: This family is unhoused. In this moment, school is likely low on their list of priorities. One of the greatest opportunities to expand their life options is one of the most compromised when faced with such physical insecurity. 

Inside the Ryman Auditorium. Photo credit: RecoilRick.

Last weekend was a great weekend. My husband and I celebrated his 40th birthday, and one of the things we did was attend a Nickel Creek concert at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium. And, surprisingly enough, it was at this concert that the why of our diversity work was further clarified for me.

After a really incredible—and yet in some ways challenging—few days spent participating in staff-wide diversity conversations, I had wondered to myself about the nature of this work. It is hard. The analogy I am most often reminded of is when I try to clean a room in my house: as I empty the drawers, pulling out items tucked and hidden away over the years, the room tends to look far messier before it gets clean. Often, in that moment of cleaning when I’m surrounded by clothes, middle school yearbooks, and random bills, I wonder, why am I even doing this? I must admit sometimes that is my tension as we tackle our diversity work, too.

But as I looked around in the Ryman on Friday night, I was reminded why our work of thinking about race, class, nationality, gender, privilege, and history has to be part of our work. Nickel Creek is an amazingly talented group, and Nashville is a diverse city. Yet in the Ryman’s 2,300+ person auditorium, I saw only a few other folks who weren’t white. As I sat there, I began realizing why this task of thinking and working honestly—to be not only anti-racist but fully appreciative and inclusive of diversity—is so important and so challenging. We tend to live in homogeneous silos, and our lives can so easily be separate experiences even in a city as diverse as Nashville.

(Photo credit: Julio Ibarra)

Recently, Nashville had the pleasure of welcoming President Obama to McGavock High School, one of our local public schools. It was a moment of great pride for our city as the president highlighted the work in Nashville schools that he would like to encourage throughout the country.

The event was joyful, with plenty of happiness and buzz among the many people who work long hours and early mornings, and tackle intellectual, political, and societal problems to make sure every child in our city has a great education. These folks—teachers, students, parents, district leaders, school leaders, political leaders, religious leaders, nonprofit leaders—often work in anonymity toward this goal, so it was fun to take a moment to celebrate.

For me, the best part of the event was when President Obama recognized McGavock High School teacher Barclay Randall. Mr. Randall, a broadcast teacher (who was taping the event with a few students and wiped away tears of joy as he was being lauded) had transformed the lives of many students—and in particular, that of Sara Santiago.

“When Sara was in Mr. Randall’s class, he helped her discover this passion for filmmaking,” President Obama said. “And pretty soon, Sara’s grades started to improve. She won the school’s ‘Best Editing’ award. Then she got an internship with Country Music Television—one of [the school’s] business partners. And then she was accepted to the prestigious Savannah College of Art and Design. And she gives credit to Mr. Randall for this. She says, ‘Mr. Randall gave me a second chance. He saw things I never saw in myself. He’s the person who helped me change.’”

I appreciate that President Obama took the time to recognize the work and accomplishments of a teacher. As districts around the country are deep in recruitment season, I am trying to reconcile the collective celebration and appreciation we seem to have for teachers with the reality that far too many prospective teachers still hear: “You are too”—fill in the blank: smart, driven, etc.—“to be a teacher.”

In recent years, I’ve heard ideas from lots of folks about who and what Teach For America represents. Some are a representation of who we are at our best. Some are a representation of who we are at our worst. Some of these ideas reflect outdated views of our organization—what Teach For America once was but isn’t currently. Some are right, some are wrong. I am excited to welcome a national Teach For America conversation here to Nashville next week so we, as a community, can discuss who Teach For America is and what we represent. 
As Executive Director of the Nashville region, I get the privilege of hearing stories of the real work that corps members, alumni, students, and community partners take on every day – beautiful, heart-filled, challenging, and inspiring. In a world of Twitter spats and theoretical debates, these stories of students thriving, teachers growing, and parents leading are painfully, glaringly absent.

This is the fifth and final post in a Pass the Chalk series on the term "achievement gap."

I have had a long-standing pinch with the term achievement gap, though I struggled to articulate why – until I read a recent post by my fellow TFA alumna Camika Royal (Baltimore ’99), which helped me more fully explore that discomfort.   

The term “achievement gap” first showed up in academic papers in the 1960s.  It referred specifically to gaps in educational achievement between White and Black – then called Negro – students during desegregation in New Jersey. In coining the term, researchers were highlighting the need to expand educational opportunities for Black children, which was no doubt a good intention.

Photo by Unknown via WikiCommons

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We believe education is the most pressing issue facing our nation. On Pass the Chalk, we'll share our takes on the issues of the day, join the online conversation about education, and tell stories from classrooms, schools, and communities around the nation.

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